Primary school years are an important time for children to learn not only about reading, writing and arithmetic, but also how to create and sustain relationships. What children do and say on the playground becomes their habits of making friends and exploring intimacy later in life.
Recognizing the huge potential contained in early education years, the California state legislature has recently passed a law to introduce sexual assault education for K-12 students starting in the 2016-2017 school year. Lawmakers hope that this new curriculum will not only prevent sexual assault at school, but start chipping away at the prevalence of sexual harassment in our nation’s culture.
Sexual Harassment Often Starts at School
It may seem like a stretch to think that schoolyard squabbles are the root cause of sexual assault. But that is exactly what the research reveals.
In the wake of events like the Brock Turner rape case at Stanford University, sociologists have been closely examining the provenance of sexual assault.
To many people’s minds, that particular case did not fit the typical profile of sexual assault—an expensive, prestigious university as the setting, a wealthy and accomplished student as the antagonist. The case proved that there is no single or even typical profile of a sexual assaulter. This behavior is not ultimately rooted in cultural context and family upbringing. Instead, sexual harassment and assault are the result of the antagonist having misbegotten concepts about gender and power.
And those concepts, according to researchers, are learned at a very early age.
According to a report by EdSource, “Power and gender identity come to the fore in middle school when girls and boys take stock of their relative status as social and sexual beings.”
This awareness usually starts in late elementary school and middle school, and recent surveys of students in this age group yield a grim state of affairs.
A 2011 study of 2000 middle and high school students around the US revealed that 48 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment or sexual assault such as unwelcome comments, gestures, and touching while they were at school. Some reported even being forced to do or see things of a sexual nature against their will.
When this behavior goes unchecked, it’s little wonder that sexual harassment and assault have become rampantly systemic in our society.
“The failure of schools to address sexual harassment and sexual assault in K-12 mirrors the failure to address it in society as a whole,” says Rebecca Peterson-Fisher, an attorney with San Francisco’s Equal Rights Advocates.
The Truth About Title IX
Federal Title IX legislation is meant to protect students against this behavior, a fact that many administrators and teachers fail to realize. Rebecca Peterson-Fisher says that most school officials think that Title IX only applies to sports, or to teacher relationships with students.
In fact, Title IX is intended to protect all students against any form of sexual harassment in school. However, not only is there poor awareness of the legislation’s extent, but according to one national Title IX administrator, an estimated 85 percent of school districts nationwide fail to comply with the law at the most basic level.
California’s Department of Education is among those failures. In 2013, the department sent a letter to all school districts to complete a survey examining their compliance with Title IX—the response was so low that the results of the survey were not even published.
Erin Prangley, associate director of government relations for D.C.-based research and policy organization the American Association of University Women, sums it up this way:
“Many school cultures trivialize harassment, tolerate language that degrades girls and women, and leave unchallenged the misconception that masculinity means being superior and aggressive and femininity means being inferior and submissive. These unchecked attitudes emerge at an early age and help create a mindset that, at the college level, has the potential to contribute to sexual assaults.”
New California Sex Education to Focus on Sexual Assault
In light of these findings, the California state legislature passed Assembly Bill No. 329, which mandates that California schools must provide information about sexual harassment and assault, healthy relationships and body image, along with affirmative information about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Another new law requires schools to incorporate instruction about affirmative consent (“yes means yes”) into health and sex-ed classes.
It is hoped that this sexual assault prevention education will reverse the deplorable trend of sexual assault in school. No student should have to fear for their safety or their dignity in the school environment. A student’s right to a good education includes an assured protection from sexual harassment and assault from anyone within school grounds.